On the East Coast, when the mercury rises above 90 degrees, they hunker down indoors, avoiding both the heat and the humidity. But here in Taos, we revel in the warmth of the sun and take refuge in the shade, where the dry air means a comfortable sojourn in the outdoors. We celebrate our "solar capital" every day.
And yet, who wants to cook when it's hot? Salads are a must, of course. Fortunately, both greens and fruits like cherries are just beginning to show up from the farm to the table. But after a while, salads just don't satisfy as much as a cooked meal. Grilling is always an option, but it does involve at least one person standing in front of a hot fire. And even heating things up on the stove can heat things up in the house.
My friend, Bonnie Lee Black, a former Taos News food columnist who moved to Mexico a year ago, recently shared with me her enthusiasm for solar cooking. In San Miguel de Allende, the sun shines almost every day, as it does here in Taos, and she cooks meals in her new solar oven year-round. I've often placed a glass pitcher with water and teabags on the patio table to make sun tea, but I've never tried cooking in a solar oven. Her passion was infectious, so, of course, I had to get one and try it out.
Now you can construct your own workable solar oven from cardboard, foil and duct tape, but it's not likely to last beyond a few uses. Or you can spend thousands on a glass and metal solar cooker meant to last a lifetime. But Bonnie recommended a unique and affordable model available online, called the SunFlair. It is a folding and compact model designed for both camping and green living. After checking it out, I ordered one and was delighted that it also came with a thermometer, a rack, a black metal baking sheet and its own clever collapsible black silicone cookware.
The sun has been used for millennia for the purpose of drying food to save for later use, but not necessarily to cook it. Since the 18th century, scientists experimenting with glass and greenhouses began to see potential in using the sun to cook food. But maintaining and sustaining heat levels for cooking was an idea in its infancy. The modern solar cooking movement has its roots in early attempts in the 1950s and later in the 1980s to find a viable solution to concentrate the rays and, therefore, the heat of the sun by using reflective surfaces, mirrors and other heat traps to devise a practical and efficient technique.
Solar cooking is best viewed as an outdoor method of slow cooking. Dishes take hours to cook, and the results usually resemble those simmered in a slow cooker. And yet, I wanted to try something really simple for my first attempt. So, my initial solar cooking project involved golden beets. I placed four unpeeled beets with about half a cup of water in the black quart-size cooking vessel and placed it in the cooker for several hours. When I carefully removed the pot with oven mitts, I found that the beets had cooked perfectly. By allowing them to cool covered, the peels came off very easily. Best of all, the beets were tender and just al dente enough!
My second undertaking was to try one of my husband's favorite dishes, the delicious chicken dinner served by chef Fred Muller at El Meze. I adapted it for the solar oven using boneless chicken breasts instead of whole cut-up chicken. I cooked it for several hours, and while not as spectacular as Muller's original, I was pleased with the results. The chicken, fennel and lemons surprisingly roasted up well -- tender, savory and flavorful.
I next tackled a vegetarian dish, which I call "three sisters enchilada casserole." The name is in honor of the three vegetables that Native American farmers traditionally have grown together: squash, beans and corn. I layered sautéed zucchini and onions with green chiles, black beans, corn and tortillas. When I opened the lid after three hours, the cheese had melted and browned. And the leftovers tasted even better the next day.
When I reported my successes to Bonnie, she said, "Try making a flan! The solar cooker does wondrous things with such eggy, slow-cooked dishes." I liked the idea and decided to try a savory version, a solar-baked spinach and tomato pudding. After a mere hour and a half, the custard was set and the ingredients were done. By cooking it in the silicone pot, I easily flipped it out onto a plate for a luscious fluffy crustless quiche, appetizing and savory. I guess I'm hooked!
Today, many organizations promote the value and foundation of solar cooking. The internet is a treasure trove of information and recipes, from building your own to developing a repertoire of preparations. But here are some tips to help make your foray into solar cooking a triumph rather than a travail.
Try to do your cooking during the hottest and sunniest hours of the day, usually between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m, when you can take advantage of the best angle of the sun. Refocus your cooker to face toward the sun every 45 minutes or so to find the strongest rays. Unless you have a direct and constant line to the sun, you may need to cook your food during the midday hours. With afternoon monsoons, cooking early in the day will be a must.
A good solar oven thermometer, such as the one that came with my SunFlair, is a big help in gauging the cooking temperature. However, an ordinary oven thermometer will work well, too. The temperature range that is safe for cooking is between 200 and 300 degrees. Preheat your oven and do not put your food into it until the thermometer registers 180 degrees. As a cautionary note, you need two to three hours of strong sun; if it clouds over before the cooking is done, you may have to bring your food in and find another way to finish it.
Cookware is important. With the exception of cookies, solar cooking generally requires a tightly covered pot - the darker the better. Black cookware concentrates the heat, so dark enameled pots with lids are best - or the black silicone pots that came with my oven. To make the chicken dish, I used a dark metal baking pan and sealed it with foil. The most difficult part was keeping the temperature hot enough around the pan, as the foil reflected the heat rather than absorbing it. But I quickly fixed that by setting the black cookie sheet on top, which kept the chicken roasting in the desired temperature range for the whole three hours.
No need to check food too often; in fact, every time you open up the oven or a pot to look, you need to add 15 minutes to the cooking time to bring the temperature back up. Most dishes need at least two to three hours. Stews and casseroles are easiest and almost foolproof. Chicken on the bone or a larger roast will be delightfully tender after four hours in the oven. Altitude is an important factor, too, as water boils at a lower temperature in Taos, meaning you'll need a little more liquid and a bit more time for any recipe.
The good news is you need not worry about overcooking in a solar oven (except for cookies and breads), so you can let your dish cook all day. You can keep food warm until later, reheat when the sun comes back out or serve it at room temperature. But depending on where you live, if you want to eat your meal right when it comes out hot from the oven, this may mean your main meal will be served for lunch.
The solar oven will never replace my conventional oven, as I've spent a lifetime honing my conventional baking and roasting skills - and those results are my personal treasures. But it has its place, especially in Taos, whether camping or for daily use. Convenient, reliable and a partner in our search for sustainable living, the solar oven may be an outstanding add-on to your culinary repertoire.
If you're interested in solar cooking and would like to obtain your own solar oven, take a look at the website sunflair.net. I contacted the owners of SunFlair to let them know I was writing this article, and they have generously offered readers of The Taos News a 10 percent discount when ordering from their website using the coupon code TAOSNEWS.
You can follow Bonnie Lee Black's blog, "THE WOW FACTOR -- Words of Wisdom from Wise Older Women," and sign up to receive it in your inbox at bonnieleeblack.com/blog.